Opioids is the term used for prescription medications and illegal drugs that are derived from or act like opium, which comes from the poppy plant. In fact, prescription opioids like fentanyl, codeine and morphine are often recommended by doctors to treat patients experiencing intense pain due to an injury or a surgical procedure. However, opioids have a dark side too. When used as prescribed, opioids are quite safe and effective, but when misused, they can lead to dependence, overdose and addiction.
How opioids work
Useful in relieving pain, opioids work by targeting specific opioid receptors in the body, called the “mu,” “delta” and “kappa” receptors located in the brain stem, limbic system and the spinal cord. The spinal cord is where they stop pain signals from reaching the brain, thereby, providing pain relief. The brainstem is where opioids slow down breathing and reduce painful coughing. The limbic system is where opioids can produce a pleasurable effect and help people relax. It is this pleasurable feeling that leads many people to the road of opioid abuse.
Those who take opioids without a prescription or use illegal substances like heroin run a high risk of opioid abuse or addiction because of the effects that opioids have on the reward center of the brain. Opioids flood the brain with a chemical called dopamine, giving people the euphoria they are seeking. Since the brain is hardwired to repeat pleasurable behaviors, prolonged use of opioids can lead to addiction.
Some of the symptoms of opioid abuse include:
- Decreased sense of pain
- Decreased respiration
- Stomach upset, including nausea, vomiting and constipation
In 2016, approximately 11.8 million Americans (aged 12 or above), including 891,000 adolescents (aged 12 to 17) misused opioids in the past year. The numbers continue to increase year after year, shedding light on the fact that opioids are abused more instead of being used for the right reasons, thereby, claiming more lives than ever.